It’s that time of year again. The temperature drops, it’s dark most of the time except for all those lights on the trees. Christmas is here.
Here is a survival guide, of sorts, based off of some moments and topics in my life that stand out as worth mentioning around the holidays.
I like to think that we are a fairly normal bunch in most respects. For background, my family is extremely small. My parents are divorced and Christmas is kept to my mom’s side of the family. This includes myself, my mom, two sisters (Nicole and Katelynn), grandparents and aunt and uncle. And yes, despite having a small family, the stress of meeting everyone’s needs and trying to pull the whole family together for a few hours can still be remarkably difficult.
Thankfully, as a close family, the uncomfortable and awkward atmosphere of being around distant relatives that are seen once a year is mostly diminished. That’s not the case for many people who have to tolerate their weird racist great aunt or that strange cousin who loves horses a little too much.
When we would have to go visit my father’s family during the divorce we had to interact with people such as this. Being exposed to them made us feel more grateful for the sane members of our family.
Here are some tactics that were employed to survive these encounters. Some are still employed at our normal Christmases because it’s the holidays and things get weird.
Hiding. Yep, taking long bathroom breaks or spending a lot of time in rooms that certain family members are not occupying is a tried and true test of avoidance.
Working in shifts. After spending a certain amount of time with someone it is necessary to take a break. This means occasionally tagging in a wayward sibling while you duck into another room.
Buffer zone. This is pretty much the buddy system. And by that, I mean using your buddy as a buffer to suddenly change the topic of an awkward conversation or to drop a random question when things get tense.
Run away. Not literally, but it’s not uncommon to make frequent trips to Walgreen's for something we don’t really need as a way to get out of the house.
Pets. Everyone likes to talk about their pets. We often use ours as the center of conversation when we run out of things to talk about.
Food. The perfect solution. The kitchen is either hellishly tense or the best reprieve to an uncomfortable moment. Often, that’s where my mom, grandma and I meet up to have a mini, silent vent session, then we pound some coffee and go about our business as usual.
There are many variables that factor in, such as weather, sickness, timing, distance and vehicle reliability/availability.
My grandparents live in Iowa, and my aunt and uncle (mom’s brother) live in Arizona. My aunt’s family also lives in Iowa, and they have their traditions, so most years we end up making the trip to Iowa for Christmas. It has become harder to coordinate this now that we all have jobs and don’t have the glorious winter break from school, but when we were younger it was a sight to see.
Bless my mother's heart for putting up with three teenage girls in a minivan in -30 degree weather. At that time we also only had the one vehicle, so riding with someone else was not an option.
Here are some great things that we did to make those trips bearable.
Music. We did not have smartphones during the bulk of our “traveling together” years. A lot of mix CD’s were made and iPods were super helpful. We listened to the soundtracks from the movies “Holes” and “Elf” a lot.
Seating arrangements. At one point there were certain areas in the van that we had to sit in for maximum “no fighting” efficiency. Being in an enclosed space with anyone for too long can get tense, but toss in a cat and a dog (both of whom had limited free range in the vehicle) and a bunch of suitcases, presents and food, and things got fun really fast.
Backpacks of stuff. We each brought a lot of things to keep ourselves occupied. This was important, because whatever we brought had to keep us entertained for however long we were in Iowa.
Games. We did our best to be creative with things like the Alphabet Game or other car games. Most of the time we did this for Katelynn, who was the youngest, and I would grudgingly participate while trying to read my book at the same time.
Some excellent memories were made on those rides, and looking back, a lot of nostalgia has formed for those trips. As the years have gone by, all of us traveling at once has become more complicated due to differing schedules. We’re now lucky if we get one full day in Iowa before one of us has to drive back separately.
Seeing people the day after Thanksgiving who have a fully decorated tree up in the window induces a kind of disturbing fascination within me. Normally after Thanksgiving we are still too full to move.
We’ve come to accept that fact that the house will not look like a window display, and that is just fine. I’m in an apartment now, so I’m less involved in the home decorating process, but my mom always pulls it together and makes the house look dope.
Here are a few things worth mentioning about decorating:
Christmas CD’s. It’s not the same without the music. My mom has a box full of these CD’s, most of which are from the 90’s, that is pulled out every year. The Neil Diamond one sticks out in my head as one we listened to a lot for some reason.
Christmas snacks. Because who decorates without eating a ridiculous amount of snacky holiday themed food?
The tree. Every year we wonder why we get a tree. Most years our thought process runs something like this: “Hey, Christmas is in two days. Should we get a tree, like, right now?” Then we slap some lights up and toss on a few ornaments and my cat goes insane because we brought nature into the house.
Is it really worth it? No. We hate the cold, it’s a pain to bring it inside, our pets go crazy and then in a few weeks it gets tossed. This is a team effort generally done short a team member or two depending on who is busy. Just get a fake tree.
At the very least, the decorations we put out have good memories associated with them, and it adds to that Christmas vibe every year. Which, I guess, is the point.
Some people are really easy to buy for. Some are not. It’s a great challenge to find the perfect gift for that one person in the family who has constantly changing, high value taste and you’re standing there with a budget of $20 total going, “Perhaps they will still love me if I write a really nice card.”
A few ways to deal with presents:
Shop at better places. You can get the same thing at Marshalls that you can get at Macy’s and pay way less. I shamelessly promote Marshalls after working there for a year because the deals are wild.
Thank you, internet. Amazon and Ebay are the greatest places to find that one really weird thing someone in your family has to have.
White elephant. My boyfriend’s giant family does this at their Christmas and everyone tosses in a few dollar presents and we play games to get presents and stuff. Last year I got a copy of the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” and a Renaissance Festival goblet from 1998. A good haul.
Make food together. Food is a present all on it’s own, at least in my family’s book. Some of my best memories are of making desserts with my sisters, mom and grandma while watching those sort of unsettling claymation holiday movies from the 70s (I’m thinking “The Year Without a Santa Claus.”)
Every year, my family says we are going to do something different for Christmas, and every year we sort of fall back into the same habits. We do our best, which is what everyone (hopefully) does at this time of year.
When things go wrong
You can prepare for Christmas physically and mentally, and something will still go spinning wildly out of control. Our family has way too many examples of this happening. It is not all glamorous Hallmark movies. Some years it feels more like a bad sit-com.
Our family has grown to expect the unexpected and hope that we can just spend some time together without a crisis. Due to this, we have learned to not take things for granted.
I occasionally reflect on movies like “A Christmas Story” because Murphy's Law factors in so frequently. "If it can go wrong, it will go wrong." But that’s how the memories are made. If every Christmas were the same old, simple holiday then it would cease to be memorable.
Half of the battle is wading through the weird and unpredictable situations and thinking, “Next year can’t possibly be a repeat of last year,” and it isn’t, because something even crazier happens.
The best way to deal with Christmas is through perspective. Looking back at past Christmases leading up to now, each year has brought something different to deal with, for better or worse. It’s best to try to accept and enjoy it for what it is, no matter the circumstances. Christmas is about appreciating your family and those you love for everything they do and are, warts and all. The details of the season may be tough to deal with, but you'll get through it. Just keep the big picture in mind.
Renee Brown is a staff writer with the Northfield News and the Faribault Daily News. She can be contacted at email@example.com